Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Economic Discrimination and Exploitation

In identifying women’s human rights concerns under this theme the working session participants emphasized the following:

Economic Independence and Access to Income. Participants urged an examination of obstacles to women’s education, training, employment, career advancement, and credit. For example, in Ireland, many FÁS training programmes are "outdated or irrelevant," or community employment schemes may be unavailable to women because they tend not to register as unemployed and are therefore ineligible. In addition to having greater access for women to existing programmes, there must be "a wider vista of access routes" to economic independence that are more in tune with women’s realities.

There is a need for more resources to develop lobbying and public awareness campaigns at the national and international level that would underscore the "need for women’s economic independence." Such campaigns are vital in making women’s human rights visible. The recent Live Register Campaign, which was co-sponsored by the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed and aimed to educate more women about their entitlements as unemployed people, is an example of the kind of strategy needed in this context.

There is also a need to introduce measures that acknowledge the economic value of women’s unpaid work and facilitate women receiving pensions in their own right whether or not they have worked outside the home.

More generally, we need to consider other areas where assigning an economic measure or value to an unrecognised area would serve to highlight the extent of a human rights problem and the need for action. For example, if we were to measure the "downstream costs to society of violence against women" in terms of the resulting healthcare costs, work days lost, or the cost of additional social services for the women and children involved, government departments "would sit up and take notice."

Education and Training. Training programmes for women must prepare them for more high-skilled jobs so that women are not trapped in low-skilled, low-paid work. However, efforts to develop women’s capacities and to ensure job opportunities for women must address the needs of women from diverse backgrounds, including the inner-city, rural areas, or the Traveller community, for example. The concerns of women from marginalised groups must be incorporated into all strategies (governmental and non-governmental) aimed at improving the economic status of women. Therefore consultation and networking across social and class divides is essential to the realisation of women’s rights as human rights.

Human rights education that would "empower women to know their situation and to name their rights" is a critical part of advancing women’s human rights, including economic rights. Further, gender training and awareness should be incorporated into curricula for all young people throughout the education and training system to discourage gender stereotypes which limit both women and men. At the same time, gender-aware development education should also be incorporated into all curricula in order to foster greater international solidarity in a global era.

Child Care. If all women are to have equal opportunities in education, training, and employment, more affordable and extensive child care facilities are required. However, the issue of child care is not just about enabling women with children to work, it is also about "getting unpaid work recognised" whether the mother chooses to work outside the home or not. A review of the current situation is required whereby women are expected to be the primary care takers in families and to bear the burden of the parenting role. Greater sharing and recognition of child care and household work is central to realising women’s economic rights.

Exploitation of Women Workers. Because women are more likely to undertake part time and/or informal work to accommodate the demands of the family, they are vulnerable to low-paid and insecure work without benefits, such as pension plans and health insurance. Women are also more likely to face discrimination with regard to hiring and promotion to senior positions because they take time out for maternity leave, child care and so on. Also the failure to measure and value women’s unpaid work must be addressed along with broader issues around the exploitation of carers in the home.

Sexual Exploitation. Sexual exploitation needs to be examined. Why do women become prostitutes or work for the pornography industry? The links between poverty, women’s lack of choice, and the sex trade need to be understood. Lack of Representation and Access to Decision Making

There is inadequate representation of women at decision-making levels in trade unions. In addition there is a lack of representation of certain areas of employment within the trade union movement so that there is a need to organise women home workers, for example. More generally, in the political system women are severely under-represented. The fact that there are few if any female ministers for finance anywhere in the world, for example, is indicative of women’s systematic marginalisation from power.

Participants argued that more women in decision making positions does have a positive impact on policy. One example cited was the EU Working Time Directive, which emerged as a result of an initiative by unions and businesses where women were well-represented. However, the fact that this directive has been somewhat diluted at the level of national implementation underscores how, when using regional or international agreements to advance "domestic" goals, there is a need for continued lobbying from the various social partners.

In order to "challenge the oppressive systems" women face, we need to engage in extensive networking to "ensure the political power is there" in the form of elected representatives who are supportive of the changes that are required. It was suggested that 30% support reflects the critical mass needed to achieve change.

Impact of Globalisation and Global Education. There are benefits and losses for women in the current drive towards globalisation. On one level, globalising forces can undermine and threaten human rights, and on the other, they afford the possibility of global solidarity around important issues. The situation of the Ogani people is a case in point. The Nigerian government, driven by the imperative of attracting multinational corporations, in this case, the Shell Oil Company, committed a series of atrocities against the Ogani people to clear the way for Shell’s operations in Nigeria. While illustrating the threats posed by a globalising economy, this situation also prompted an effective international boycott against Shell, which is a good example of using such opportunities to build global solidarity and conduct global education. We need to develop similar strategies in response to gender-specific violations around the world.

Furthermore, in the context of globalisation, there is a need for greater economic literacy – through initiatives that would "bring global economics to the level of the household, linking the local and the global." In this way women can better understand how global economic trends are affecting their lives and can exercise more leadership in this area. Also, gender perspectives must be brought to bear on Development Education programmes and in understanding development issues per se. In addition to providing the financial resources needed for such initiatives, steps must be taken to ensure that women are able to effectively use the resources available.

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